“Finally, we can see light at the end of the tunnel,” said officiating Prime Minister and current Minister of Works and Human Settlement of Bhutan, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba. In a meeting with Dr. Andrew Rowan, CEO of HSI, Mr. Zimba was referring to the results achieved by our spay/neuter/vaccination program for street dogs. In a span of three years, in a joint project with the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGoB), HSI vets have reached more than 50 percent of the total street dog population in Bhutan.
On the streets of Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, the program has made a tangible difference to the locals. “There are no new additions to the gang here,” said a shop owner, pointing to a group of dogs lounging outside.
Before HSI partnered with RGoB, local authorities had tried several methods to reduce the dog population. In the 1980s, a vigorous elimination program was carried out but failed to bring down numbers, as it always does. Relocating dogs was followed by impounding, with shelters constructed across the country. Despite all these efforts, conflicts between street dogs and people were worsening. After the impounding program, the animals who escaped from shelters would form packs of as many as 30 dogs each. “The only thing controlling their numbers was cars running over the puppies—what a mess!” Mr. Zimba said.
A happier, more humane approach
Now, in a few years, Bhutan may emerge as the first country in Asia to have successfully and humanely managed its street dog population. Dr. Rowan was there to sign a three-year extension of our project.
“This program is not only a long-term, sustainable and humane solution, but is also in harmony with Bhutan’s Buddhist culture and principles,” said Lyonpo Dr. Pema Gyamtsho, Minister of Agriculture, RGoB, as he signed the Memorandum of Understanding with HSI.
The small, mountainous country, between India and China, has been in the global spotlight for suggesting the Gross National Happiness index as one of the indicators to measure its citizens’ quality of life. At the signing, Dr. Rowan, who had visited a local dog shelter earlier in the day, spoke about having received his “happy pills” in the form of many doggy kisses. “When the dogs are sterilized, they’re healthier and people are happier. Although hard to document, this (a happier relationship between people and dogs), will be one of the more positive outcomes of HSI’s efforts in Bhutan,” Dr. Rowan said. He also predicted that Bhutan was going to be the landmark project in humane dog population control in Asia, and perhaps, the world. “Everyone’s going to be citing the Bhutan project. This is going to be a very important program.”
Indeed, the project has already garnered a great deal of appreciation from people inside the country and the animal welfare community around the world. Even neighboring Bangladesh and Nepal have taken note of Bhutan’s success. Almost all of the dignitaries and ministers that we met thanked the team and welcomed the extension. Among them was the Queen-Mother of Bhutan, Queen Ashi Tshering Yangdon, an avid dog lover. In her meeting with us, the Queen-Mother spoke about dogs as sentient beings, whose welfare people should no longer ignore.
“Across most of mountainous Bhutan, accessibility is a problem. When we started off, our vehicles broke down every day. Eventually, we had no choice but to invest in a bigger, more rugged vehicle. Even then, many areas had to be covered by foot,” said Dr. Rajesh Pandey, HSI Project Coordinator in Bhutan, who is originally from India.
In keeping with our commitment to empowering local authorities and communities to ensure long-term sustainability of our programs, our team has been consistently working to share their expertise. Over the past three years, we have kept a dynamic ratio that slowly raises the number of local vets and talent working on the project. In 2009, when we had just begun our work in Bhutan, 90 percent of the staff comprised of HSI team members, while last year, our staff comprised of only 30 percent of the entire team. The country opened to modernization only recently, and finding qualified veterinarians was not easy. “Alongside work on the field, training and setting up a local team was also essential, but there weren’t enough vets,” Dr. Pandey said.
The way ahead
Encouraged by local officials, 28 fresh veterinarians will graduate this year and are scheduled to join the government team working on the project. Also, to ensure consistent and optimal coverage, HSI will donate operation tables, equipment and surgical supplies to spaying clinics in all the 20 dzongkhags (districts) of Bhutan.
We believe that it is very important to examine the different outcomes of the spay/neuter/vaccination program. Various parameters like the subtle shifts in the human-dog relationship, rise of community adoptions when there are fewer dogs, reduced aggression and post-operative health are being considered for documentation and research.
A study, jointly conducted by HSI and RGoB staff, towards the end of the first phase (three years), demonstrated that there was reduced aggression and also howling during mating season. In the past, the barking of street dogs was the only thing many tourists complained about regarding an otherwise wonderful experience in the country! A comparative study by the team also revealed that the treated dogs fared much better in terms of general health, including skin conditions.
In the past year, our team has already been approached with numerous research proposals based on the Bhutan project. “Of course, we’re going to work on improving the program in Bhutan, but an equally important focus area is going to be documenting the entire process and creating a guide book for other countries,” said Rahul Sehgal, director of HSI/India and a project leader. “This work is important not just for Bhutan but also for other developing countries that assume incorrectly they do not have the resources to deal with the problem in a humane manner.” It is our goal to prove them wrong. Donate now to support our efforts.